Presidential speeches have been an invaluable part of U.S. democracy since Washington’s inaugural address on April 30, 1789. While much of the oral tradition has remained unchanged, the evolution of mass communication has turned speeches into conversations.
Whether it’s an inaugural address, a message to Congress, a State of the Union, or a response to a national event, presidential speeches are snapshots of the nation’s values and challenges at a given point in time. They have been used to unite what seemed like an irrevocably divided country. They hold Americans accountable to the country's founding values and signal the adoption of new ones.
In the throes of crises, death, scandal, and disillusionment, presidents have had to find the right words to quell fears, assert changes, and heal morale. In peacetime and moments of relative prosperity, presidents have used speeches to celebrate or to galvanize the country behind a greater good, a call to action, or a reason for hope.
Each speech, especially in moments of tribulation, marks the evolution of America. They are important not just for what they communicate in the moment, but what for what they communicate about that moment when viewed retroactively through the lens of history.
Presidents throughout history have found new ways to communicate with the country. From the regular use of radio with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats to Kennedy’s first live, unedited television broadcast, to constant and immediate communication enabled by social media, technology has shaped presidential correspondence with the nation.
It has also empowered Americans to gauge accuracy and transparency. Real-time fact-checking, whether by organizations like FactCheck.org or by individuals, is becoming synonymous with presidential rhetoric.
Using historical documents, government and political science websites, and news articles, Stacker compiled a list of famous speeches from every U.S. president. Read on to understand what these speeches were about and how they relate to particular moments in U.S. history.
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- Speech name: Farewell address
- Date delivered: Sept. 19, 1796
One of the greatest things Washington ever did for the office of the presidency was quit. By refusing to serve as president for a third term, Washington established a precedent for limiting executive power and signaled the value of the transition of power. Washington’s farewell address, which was printed in papers, not delivered in person, cautioned against “pretended patriotism,” political divisions, and permanent foreign alliances. Washington questioned whether his words would have an enduring impact, but it’s easy to appreciate their timeless relevance even two centuries later.
- Speech name: Inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 4, 1797
Second in a long line of inaugural addresses that praised the principles of the Constitution, Adams’ speech also warns against losing perspective on the nation’s hard-won liberties. Corruption, fraud, and terror are among the evils that threaten the Constitution and those who lead by it.
- Speech name: First inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 4, 1801
In his first inaugural address, Jefferson presented his goals for the presidency and objectives for the nation. This included unifying Republicans and Federalists, establishing equal rights, and upholding the tenets of the Constitution.
- Speech name: Special message to congress on the foreign policy crisis—war message
- Date delivered: June 1, 1812
In this message to Congress, Madison asks Congress to declare war against Great Britain, citing four justifications, including impressment, illegal blockades, the Orders in Council, and British responsibility for inciting warfare among Native Americans. The House of Representatives voted 79-49 in favor of war. While the British revoked the Orders in Council in an attempt to avoid war, word reached the United States too late. June 18 marked the beginning of the War of 1812.
- Speech name: Seventh annual message
- Date delivered: Dec. 2, 1823
Layered into a routine annual message to Congress, Monroe outlined the philosophy and tenets for what would eventually be known as the Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine—named after Monroe but written by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams—established the United States as a sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere and warned against European colonization in the New World. Monroe also asserted that any encroachment on the Western Hemisphere would be considered “dangerous to our peace and safety” and acted upon accordingly. Since this speech, the Monroe Doctrine has largely shaped U.S. foreign policy.
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- Speech name: Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on Foreign Policy
- Date delivered: July 4, 1821
John Quincy Adams’ most referenced speech was actually delivered when he served as the secretary of state, not the U.S. president. He praised America’s dedication to freedom and peace—not just her own, but of those around the world. “She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.” Considered to be, at best, ineffective and at worst, a failure, Adams’ legacy is defined more so by his diplomatic success before and after his presidency—including his facilitation of America’s expansion west to the Pacific, and his vocal opposition to slavery—than his time in office.
- Speech name: Second annual message to Congress
- Date delivered: Dec. 6, 1830
The United States was fervently embracing an attitude of territorial expansion when Andrew Jackson took office in 1829. A champion of the cultural shift toward frontier life, Jackson initiated the Indian Removal Act of 1830, allowing the government to remove Native Americans, at times forcibly, from territories within state borders in exchange for unsettled land west of the Mississippi. Just several months after signing and enacting the Indian Removal Act, Jackson delivered his "Second Annual Message to Congress" in which he defends the policy, lauds its early success, and reinforces the belief that all parties involved stood to benefit from it.
- Speech name: Inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 4, 1837
Van Buren, the first president born an American citizen, used his inaugural address to assure the nation that he could represent and serve everyone. He talked about the country’s growth over the last 50 years and celebrated unique success. He delineated between the roles of state and federal government. He also vows to maintain the status quo of slavery in the country, appealing to skeptical constituents in the south.
- Speech name: Inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 4, 1841
At just over two hours, William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address—and the only speech he gave as president of the United States—is the longest in history. Harrison’s presidential tenure, however, is the briefest in history, cut short when he died from pneumonia 31 days into his term. Invoking parallels to Roman emperors and immovable European monarchies, Harrison spoke of the dangers of the presidency and called for term limits to avoid corruption. The most prescient forewarning in Harrison’s inaugural address, which was delivered 20 years before the start of the American Civil War, comments on the dangers of disunion among the states.
- Speech name: Address upon assuming the office of president of the United States
- Date delivered: April 9, 1841
John Tyler became the first vice president to assume the office of the president after William Henry Harrison’s death in 1841, establishing the precedent for presidential succession. Instead of an inaugural address, Tyler delivers a statement to Congress acknowledging the novelty of the situation and vows to uphold the ideal of his predecessor.
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- Speech name: Inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 4, 1845
Polk’s inaugural address aptly captures the spirit of the nation at that point in time, which was growing rapidly with an appetite for more. He celebrates the annexation of Texas and of the opportunities that Oregon will afford. Besides celebrating expansion, he also outlines his opposition to a national bank. Polk reestablished the Independent Treasury system, which remained in place until 1913.
- Speech name: Inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 5, 1849
Zachary Taylor died just 16 months into his term. Like his predecessors, Taylor expressed his gratitude to the country, his reverence for the office of the presidency, and his determination to uphold the values outlined in the Constitution.
- Speech name: Message regarding compromise with Texas
- Date delivered: Aug. 6, 1850
In this message to Congress, Fillmore expressed his support of the Compromise of 1850. He recommended that Congress overturn the Wilmot Proviso, making Texas open to slavery. Fillmore also asked that Texas be paid to give up parts of New Mexico. Congress paid Texas $10 million for the territory.
- Speech name: Message regarding disturbances in Kansas
- Date delivered: Jan. 24, 1856
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed citizens of Kansas and Nebraska, rather than the federal government, to decide whether to permit or prohibit slavery within the boundaries of those territories. As a result, pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates fought to establish political dominance in the state. Clashes grew more violent, and in 1856, Pierce addressed Congress on the extent of the civil unrest.
- Speech name: Message to Congress transmitting the constitution of Kansas
- Date delivered: Feb. 2, 1858
James Buchanan is widely regarded as one of the worst presidents of all time, in many cases earning the title of worst. His message to Congress regarding the recent elections in Kansas helps to illustrate why. It was well-known that voter fraud was rampant—in favor of pro-slavery factions—in the recent vote on whether Kansas should be a slave state. Despite knowing this, Buchanan supported the vote and the territory’s new Constitution. He urged Congress to approve the controversial legislation, looking for the fastest way to make the conflict in Kansas disappear.
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- Speech name: Gettysburg Address
- Date delivered: Nov. 19, 1863
It’s possible that no speech has done more with less. Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg is regarded as one of the most influential in American history, and he wasn’t even the top-billed speaker that day. Edward Everett, a politician from Massachusetts, delivered the program’s official two-hour Gettysburg address. But it was Lincoln’s two-minute remarks, in which he spoke of the country’s unique founding values of liberty and equality for all and the need to protect and unite the nation under those values, that have resonated throughout history.
- Speech name: Veto message on civil rights legislation
- Date delivered: March 27, 1866
In the wake of the Civil War, Congress proposed the Civil Rights Act to provide newly freed slaves with federal citizenship and expand the impact of the pre-existing Freedmen's Bureau. Johnson vetoed the legislation reasoning in his message to Congress that it operated “in favor of the colored and against the white race.” Johnson’s veto message challenged the whole necessity of citizenship for newly freed slaves and even questioned if they were worthy of that privilege. Congress overrode Johnson’s veto on April 9, 1866, enacting legislation that would take over 100 years fully actualize.
- Speech name: Announcement of Fifteenth Amendment ratification
- Date delivered: March 30, 1870
In this speech, Grant announces the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which establishes universal black male suffrage. Grant calls the 15th Amendment the greatest civil change and most important event since the birth of the nation. He warns those privileged citizens who have long enjoyed the country’s freedoms and the right to express their opinions through voting not to stand in the way of the newly enfranchised. Grant also references Washington’s belief that a successful government can only be sustained by an enlightened populace. Grant challenged everyone “to see to it that all who possess and exercise political rights shall have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge which will make their share in the Government a blessing and not a danger.”
- Speech name: Prohibition of federal employees’ political involvement
- Date delivered: June 22, 1877
In 1877, to stifle corruption and dismantle the spoils system, Hayes issued an executive order barring federal employees from involvement in political activities such as the management of political organizations, campaigns, conventions, or caucuses. Additionally, those in office could not be removed for political reasons. The order marked a significant moment for civil service reform and laid the groundwork for the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883.
- Speech name: Inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 4, 1881
Garfield was shot four months into his term by Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau sought to exact retribution against the president for not being appointed a consulship in Europe. Succumbing to his wounds two months later, after a total of just six months in office, Garfield’s most memorable speech is his inaugural address. Garfield celebrated the rights of African Americans now written into the Constitution but rebuked persistent attempts being made in parts of the country to prevent them from exercising these rights. “Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessings,” Garfield stated, “so long as the law or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous citizen.”
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- Speech name: Veto of the Chinese Exclusion Act
- Date delivered: April 4, 1882
The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first prohibitive immigration law passed in the United States. Laborers on the west coast blamed Chinese immigrant workers for their economic hardships even though they comprised only a fraction of one percent of the population. The Chinese Exclusion Act initially proposed to suspend Chinese immigration for 20 years. To the dismay of American laborers, Arthur vetoed the first bill, concerned that 20 years was too long and could prove to be permanently damaging to trade relations with China. Arthur eventually signed a bill that suspended immigration for 10 years and denied citizenship for current Chinese residents.
- Speech name: Message regarding U.S. labor force
- Date delivered: April 22, 1886
Cleveland asserted that laborers were an indispensable part of the country’s strength and prosperity. In considering their contributions to the growth of the U.S., Cleveland proposed the creation of a government committee that would operate under the Bureau of Labor to resolve disputes between labor and capital. Cleveland stated that a laborer’s demands “should be met in such a spirit of appreciation and fairness as to induce a contented and patriotic cooperation in the achievement of a grand national destiny.”
- Speech name: Message regarding Valparaiso incident
- Date delivered: Jan. 25, 1892
During a period of escalating tension between the United States and Chile, beginning with the Itata incident and reaching its peak with the Valparaiso incident, both countries were inching closer to waging war. Harrison sent a special message to Congress, urging them to take “appropriate actions” against Chile, expressing support for war and severing diplomatic relations. War was averted after Chile agreed to terms of a U.S. ultimatum.
- Speech name: Message regarding Venezuelan-British dispute
- Date delivered: Dec. 17, 1895
The United States got involved in an ongoing boundary dispute between Venezuela and Britain during Cleveland's second presidential term. Venezuela appealed to the U.S. to intervene in the territorial dispute for nearly two decades before Cleveland made his appeal to Congress regarding the matter. In this message, he invoked the Monroe Doctrine as justification for involvement, specifically to create a commission that would assess and enforce their findings “by every means.” The U.S. established itself internationally as a power in the Western Hemisphere, willing to use the Monroe Doctrine to preserve that status.
- Speech name: Speech in Buffalo, New York
- Date delivered: Sept. 5, 1901
On Sept. 5, 1901, six months into his second term, McKinley spoke at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. His remarks, shaped by his first term spent navigating foreign policy and fighting the Spanish American War, focus on progress in business, avoidance of war, and building goodwill internationally. “The period of exclusiveness is past. The expansion of our trade and commerce is the pressing problem.” McKinley was shot the next day and died from his wounds eight days later.
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- Speech name: Message regarding meatpacking plants
- Date delivered: June 4, 1906
Theodore Roosevelt is regarded by many experts as one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history. Among his many enduring accomplishments, his advocacy for consumer protection endures. In 1906, after revelations of the dangerous and unsanitary conditions of stockyards and meatpacking plants, Roosevelt addressed Congress, calling for immediate legislation to regulate the industry. Later that month, Roosevelt signed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required transparent product labeling and federal inspection of all plants engaged in interstate commerce.
- Speech name: Message regarding income tax
- Date delivered: June 16, 1909
In this speech, Taft proposed two tax-related pieces of legislation. First, that Congress ratifies the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, permitting the collection of personal federal income tax. This was viewed by supporters as a better way to generate income instead of relying heavily on tariffs. Second, that all corporations, except banks, pay a 2% tax on net income.
- Speech name: Wilson's Fourteen Points
- Date delivered: Jan. 8, 1918
Wilson’s famous "Fourteen Points" outlined his plan for peace to end World War I, albeit in broad terms. Recognizing that America’s prosperity would come to rely more substantially on international relations, Wilson’s "Fourteen Points" served as a framework for ensuring international cooperation. He believed his most important point was the development of a League of Nations—a governing body of united nations tasked with mitigating war by solving disputes between countries. The United Nations replaced the League of Nations at the end of World War II.
- Speech name: Opening speech of the Conference on the Limitation of Armament
- Date delivered: Nov. 12, 1921
In 1921, building on pursuing peace in the wake of World War I, Harding convened a disarmament conference in Washington. In attendance were military powers, including Belgium, China, Great Britain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Japan. In his opening remarks, Harding asks the group to collectively commit to peacetime and quell the fears of the post-war world with a reduction in firepower. The results were several disarmament treaties signed by those world powers present that day.
- Speech name: First annual message
- Date delivered: Dec. 6, 1923
Coolidge’s first annual message was the first speech to be broadcast via radio to the entire nation, making advantageous use of the medium’s rapidly growing popularity. It is estimated that 2.5 million radios existed in the U.S. at that time, while a mere 5,000 existed just three years prior. Coolidge paid homage to his predecessor William G. Harding who died in office six months earlier, expressed his support of prohibition and pushed for continued restrictions on immigration.
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- Speech name: Message regarding the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act
- Date delivered: June 16, 1930
A year into the Great Depression, against the advice of economists, Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which raised tariffs in an attempt to generate revenue for the federal government. In his message to Congress, Hoover states that no tariff bill is or will ever be perfect, but this particular one is necessary to combat the economic crisis gripping the nation. As economists had warned, trade partners retaliated by raising their own tariffs, halting international trade, and driving the U.S. into an even deeper economic depression.
- Speech name: Fireside Chat 1: On the Banking Crisis
- Date delivered: March 12, 1933
Roosevelt’s presidency spanned an unprecedented three terms. In those 12 years, he gave many influential speeches that shaped the nation and the world. His inaugural address is well-known for his affirmation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Just as familiar is his designation of Dec. 8, 1941, as “a day that will live in infamy.” But perhaps most notable is FDR’s first Fireside Chat. Speaking directly to the American public at one of the lowest points in the nation’s history, FDR used the power of mass communication to calm fears, explain politics, inform, update, and uplift. It was a novel way of leading the country, and Roosevelt hosted 30 fireside chats in total.
- Speech name: Statement by the president announcing the use of the A-bomb at Hiroshima
- Date delivered: Aug. 6, 1945
Sixteen hours after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Truman addressed the nation, explaining its unprecedented power and the need to keep the technology behind this new weapon secret. “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet,” Truman warned. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
- Speech name: Chance for Peace
- Date delivered: April 16, 1953
Following the death of Joseph Stalin, Eisenhower delivered his “Chance for Peace'' speech, also referred to as the “Cross of Iron” speech. Eisenhower spoke of the dangers of an arms race with the Soviet Union, stating “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed... under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
- Speech name: Address on the space effort
- Date delivered: Sept. 12, 1962
Seventeen months after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Kennedy outlined a plan to put a man on the moon. He galvanized the country with a desire for greatness, the likes of which the world had never seen. He reminded everyone that Americans do things like go to the moon, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It is those hard things, Kennedy attested, that the entrepreneurial spirit of America was best suited to achieve.
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- Speech name: Speech before Congress on voting rights
- Date delivered: March 15, 1965
In the wake of violence against civil rights protesters in Selma, Ala., Johnson addressed Congress requesting their help to pass voting legislation that would allow all citizens to register and cast a vote free from harassment and discrimination. Johnson expressed that pervasive discrimination and constitutional infringements were not a regional problem, but a problem the whole country shared responsibility in correcting. “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of states' rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights,” Johnson urged.
- Speech name: Address to the nation announcing decision to resign the office of president
- Date delivered: Aug. 8, 1974
Less than a month after the House Judiciary Committee voted for three articles of impeachment, Nixon announced his resignation on national television. "I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body." Nixon stated. "But as President, I must put the interests of America first." It was the first time in U.S. history that a president resigned, affirming that no person was above the law.
- Speech name: Remarks in Helsinki
- Date delivered: Aug. 1, 1975
Ford signed the controversial Helsinki Accords on Aug. 1, 1975. Among other things, the accords were a vehicle by which the U.S. and the Soviet Union could further pursue détente. In his remarks that day, Ford spoke about the U.S.’s commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms, and restoring diplomacy. “If the Soviet Union and the United States can reach agreement so that our astronauts can fit together the most intricate scientific equipment, work together, and shake hands 137 miles out in space, we as statesmen have an obligation to do as well on Earth.”
- Speech name: Crisis of Confidence
- Date delivered: July 15, 1979
In the midst of the energy crisis, America, Carter believed, was also suffering from a crisis of confidence. The country’s trust in the government was eroded. Belief in the American way of life wavered. Faith that the future would be better than the present waned. Carter reminded Americans over a television broadcast of his "Crisis of Confidence" speech that this was the country that put a man on the moon and fought for civil rights. He assured the nation that overcoming the energy crisis would be another milestone in a long history of American resilience.
- Speech name: Address on the Space Shuttle Challenger
- Date delivered: Jan. 28, 1986
At times, presidents throughout history needed to play the role of spiritual advisor. While some called upon their own religious beliefs to offer words of healing, at the core of these messages was a universal, human connection and expression of compassion. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was one such moment for Reagan. He commended on the bravery of the crew, noting that their lives and ultimately their sacrifices, which would never be forgotten, were part of a sacred tradition of pioneering and exploration. Reagan also spoke directly to the children of the country, reminding them to have courage and understand that Americans bear great risks in pursuit of greater rewards.
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- Speech name: Address to the nation on the invasion of Iraq
- Date delivered: Jan. 16, 1991
After five months of failed negotiations with Saddam Hussein and following Iraq’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait, Bush announced the aerial invasion of Iraq. His goals were outlined clearly: restore peace to Kuwait upon ousting Hussein and his forces and ensure Iraq’s compliance with U.N. resolutions. This marked the beginning of the Persian Gulf War that would last 42 days but impact relations in the region for decades to come.
- Speech name: State of the Union Address
- Date delivered: Jan. 27, 1998
What makes Clinton’s 1998 State of the Union Address impressive is that it came just one day after his response to allegations about his sexual misconduct with then-intern Monica Lewinsky. On the heels of the infamous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” Clinton showcased his persuasive speaking skills and delivered a thoughtful, focused State of the Union on preparing the country for prosperity in the 21st century.
- Speech name: Address on the U.S. response to the attacks of Sept. 11
- Date delivered: Sept. 22, 2001
Bush addressed the nation after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001—the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil. His message focused on helping and healing and invoked sentiments of the enduring strength of the country. Eleven days later, Bush addressed Congress proposing the War on Terror to defeat Al Qaeda and defend the American way of life: “These measures are essential. But the only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows.”
- Speech name: Remarks at the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches
- Date delivered: March 7, 2015
From announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden to honoring the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, Obama’s legacy is largely defined by the poignant speeches he delivered. Historian Douglas Brinkley said of Obama: “I don’t know of any president who has put that kind of work into his speeches.” Experts rank his remarks at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma march among the most influential speeches of his presidency. He asserted that one of the greatest forms of patriotism, as demonstrated at Selma 50 years earlier, is to believe that America can always evolve and to hold it to newer, higher standards.
- Speech name: Remarks about the U.S. southern border
- Date delivered: Jan. 19, 2019
In what came to be known as Trump’s border wall speech, Trump focused on what he called a humanitarian and security crisis on the southern border. He invoked grim images of ruthless coyotes, drug cartels, sexual assault, and illegal immigration in America to justify the building of a $5.7 billion border wall. Immigration reform and a barrier at the southern borders—attempts to correct what here refers to as a broken system—were signature campaign promises in Trump’s bid for election.
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